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Parliament House, 28 April 1999: transcript of press conference [East Timor; Internet; inflation rates; Alan Langer]



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PRIME MINISTER

 

28 April 1999

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER

THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP

PRESS CONFERENCE - PARLIAMENT HOUSE

Subjects: East Timor, Internet, Inflation rates, Alan Langer

E&OE

Well ladies and gentlemen, I thought I would have this news conference to elaborate a little on the outcome of yesterday’s meeting in Bali, and to answer your questions on that and any other matters. Can I say that the meeting yesterday and the outcomes should be assessed against the backdrop of two very important considerations.

The first of those was the enormous change in policy undertaken by President Habibie in relation to East Timor. I said yesterday and I repeat today that I don’t believe in some quarters, indeed in many quarters, that President Habibie has received as much credit as he deserves in relation to that change of policy.

The other important element in the backdrop to yesterday’s talks and any assessment of them is the undeniable fact that our own Government’s view, and in particular my letter to Dr Habibie in December of last year represented the catalyst for the change in the policy of the Government of Indonesia towards East Timor. And it’s very important to keep both of those things in mind. Dr Habibie had the courage to undertake a major change in policy, and that was in no small measure the result of the direct urgings of the Coalition Government in December of last year.

Yesterday’s meeting was very important. I believe the outcome was as much as could reasonably have been expected in all of the circumstances. It is an issue that is very difficult. It is easy of simple flamboyant rhetoric, but in the long run the greatest asset that Australia brings to this issue is the influence that it can exert over the course of Indonesian government policy. And having played a decisive role in influencing the course of that policy a few months ago, it would have been extraordinarily strange if Australia had abandoned the approach yet once again trying to bring its influence to bear.

What everybody wants is a free and open choice so that the people of East Timor can make a decision about their future. You can’t have that free and open choice if the circumstances of harassment and intimidation and violence continue. That is why the commitments made both before and at the meeting, and through the agreement at the United Nations in relation to maintaining peace and relative stability in East Timor are so important.

There has been a strong commitment made by the Indonesian government to the holding of an open and clean ballot. Obviously the world will suspend a judgement until those events take place. But I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the commitments that were made yesterday by both President and also the other ministers who were present.

Australia was able to secure an acceleration of the opening of our consulate in Dili. We were able to secure an acceptance by the Indonesian government of an increased presence of agencies such as the International Red Cross within Timor. And we were also able to secure other understandings in relation to circumstances affecting the province.

So overall I think the outcome was very positive. It demonstrated once again the capacity of this country to intelligently use its influence in areas of the world where that influence really counts. And we do have a particular, and a very close relationship with Indonesia and I believe that the increased international focus on the issue that derived from yesterday’s meeting will itself make a contribution towards ensuring that the free and open ballot that everybody wants within East Timor does in fact take place.

It is also though important for people to remember that Indonesia has a population of 211 million people. There are fewer than one million people in East Timor. Indonesia’s greatest problem is economic stability. Indonesia’s greatest challenge is to overcome the economic difficulties into which it has been thrust by the Asian economic downturn over the last couple of years. Australia has proved to be a reliable, but not uncritical friend of Indonesia over a very considerable period of time. And the value of being a close but not uncritical friend was demonstrated very starkly, not only last week when I was able to speak very directly and immediately to Dr Habibie, the speed with which yesterday’s meeting was arranged and the very positive outcome, and the capacity that we have had to influence in a very positive way, but also an understanding way, the course of events so far as Indonesian policy is concerned. Any questions?

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, we hear the word "advisers" in terms of police, but we heard from the Foreign Minister today that there could be perhaps a hundred or several hundreds of these "advisers", is this just a euphemism for police actually doing police work?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, police normally do police and ancillary sort of work. There’s nothing clever intended here. That was the language of the document. The actual number which President Habibie and I yesterday agreed should be adequate will be determined by the Secretary General of the United Nations. We, as a possible contributor, will obviously be putting a view to the Secretary General about an adequate number. I don’t know what it is, I’m not an expert on these matters, but I’ll get some expert advice.

JOURNALIST:

How confident are you that this special commission that’s been created within Indonesia can actually oversight some disarming?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am more confident now than I was a week ago. I’m more confident now than I was a few days ago. I mean, every time you get a renewed public commitment, particularly in the presence of the leader of the government of another country, every time there is a greater international focus and spotlight on that public commitment the likelihood of that public commitment being delivered on is increased. And I’m certainly more confident now than what I was a few days ago and certainly more confident than several weeks ago. Nobody pretends that this is an easy situation and that total order and civility has returned overnight. Nobody’s arguing that. But what I think can be said, with growing confidence, and that is that the Indonesian Government has made a strong and repeated commitment at the highest level to allowing a free and open vote and has signed itself up to a mechanism that is far more likely to achieve that than any other mechanism that’s been around for a long time, and certainly far more likely to achieve that than just noisy, rhetorical abuse with no particular purpose.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think they can have a free and open vote without total disarmament?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that is a hypothetical question in the sense that the Government and the agreement and the agreement that the Government of Indonesia signed involves a commitment to a free and open vote. It speaks of a process of the laying down of arms. One of the difficulties in comprehensively answering that question is that the document that the Indonesian Government’s committed itself to is not yet public. And I believe that when that document does become public many of the concerns about the fullness of the Government of Indonesia’s commitment to a peaceful process, a lot of those concerns will disappear.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, the vote, is it not, is for autonomy but not for independence? Did the President re-state to you yesterday his view that if the autonomy vote fails then the province will be given its independence?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, he did. He stated that publicly. He uses the word separation, which I understand. It means the same thing. There was no doubt at all, either in our private discussions or in his public utterances, that if the consultation, the vote - however you describe it - goes against autonomy within Indonesia then the Government of Indonesia will accept separation. That’s been made very clear. That is part of the agreement initialled in New York.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Downer said this morning that the police, the Australian police, who go would be armed only with their side arms. Is anyone in the Government working on a set of rules of engagement or such should Australian police see an atrocity occurring?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we will get a whole lot of advice on that. I’m not in a position to lay down the detail of it. Clearly work is already underway in relation to that.

JOURNALIST:

Given the high degree of conflict in the province historically, how confident are you that the Australians who end up there won’t get caught up in any future hostility?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there is always an element of risk when anybody goes into an unsettled area, an area where hostilities have recently occurred and are likely to occur in the future. There is always an element of risk and it would be foolhardy of me and wrong of me to pretend that there’s never any element of risk. There is risk in, as we’ve sadly seen, in recent times of aid workers who aren’t involved in any kind of police activity being put at risk and put in danger. There are risks involved in people who are members of international organisations working in any of the world’s trouble spots. It is not uncommon for Australia to contribute police in different areas of the world. Quickly calling to mind, I think we’ve had police in Cambodia, we’ve had them in Bougainville, we’ve had them in Somalia, we’ve had them in Cyprus. I think we had them in Latin America on one occasion. It’s a very long list. And I would be foolhardy to sort of say, no, there’s absolutely no risk at all. Can I say to you that in the discussions with the United Nations and in the views we put about the size of the police presence, the civilian police presence, and the circumstances surrounding them, we will naturally be seeking to secure the maximum guarantees of safety and security that can be secured in such a situation.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, the ACTU affiliates are meeting in Melbourne on Friday…

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m sorry, who?

JOURNALIST:

ACTU affiliates are meeting in Melbourne on Friday.

PRIME MINISTER:

ACTU affiliates, yes.

JOURNALIST:

Unions affiliated with the ACTU…

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m sorry, yes.

JOURNALIST:

…are meeting in Melbourne on Friday to discuss industrial action which would disrupt both Indonesian airlines and shipping. Could that damage the process at all?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’ll make a couple of observations about that. I don’t remember any of those stoppages in earlier years but we’ll put that aside for one moment. Well, I don’t know what they’re going to do. I’ll wait and see and then perhaps I’ll make a more detailed comment on it. But I’m not sure that inflicting further economic pain on Indonesia necessarily helps the ordinary people of that country or the people who live in East Timor. Remember that East Timor has one of the lowest living standards of any part of this world. And Indonesia itself has a very low living standard. I’m not sure doing anything that increases economic pain and inflicts more economic difficulty and adversity on the people of Indonesia is particularly compassionate or helpful or intelligent. I don’t know that it really adds to an appropriate resolution of this issue.

JOURNALIST:

The medical team that you are proposing to send to East Timor, would that be likely to come from the defence forces as other medical teams have to….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, not necessarily, once again I am not in possession of all of the options that are available on that. It could be from the defence forces, it may be arranged and recruited in a purely private way.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] international …continuance that Indonesia may well just decide to walk away from East Timor, simply give up on it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that really is a question that would be exercising the minds, I guess, of a lot of people in Indonesia. Not surprisingly at various stages Indonesian figures and leaders have said, as I said a moment ago, there are 211 million people in the entire republic, there’s fewer than one million in East Timor. Now, plainly things have happened there that are not to the credit of the Indonesian Government or the Indonesian armed forces. And that is the cause of international concern and that is understood and I certainly understand that, and I understand that concern and I am part of that concern. On the other hand, the Government of the Republic has huge problems that affect the whole of Indonesia and I think people have got to bear that in mind in balancing the approach and measuring the approach that they take.

JOURNALIST:

Are you confident that the Indonesian Government can bring back under control the elements of ABRI that you have….

PRIME MINISTER:

You’re unfamiliar to me, will you give me your name?

JOURNALIST:

John Mair from Reuters.

PRIME MINISTER:

Where are you from?

JOURNALIST:

Reuters.

PRIME MINISTER:

And what’s your name?

JOURNALIST:

John Mair.

PRIME MINISTER:

How are you?

JOURNALIST:

Good. I was wondering, are you confident that the Indonesian Government has control of the elements of the military that you have previously expressed concern about their actions in East Timor?

PRIME MINISTER:

There is no doubt that there has been a quantum shift so far as the assertion of control both in relation to the military by the Government and also the central control of the military in relation to its activities in East Timor. Ask me to micro-define that, I can’t, I don’t have enough knowledge. But I am certainly satisfied from what’s happened publicly from the presence yesterday of General Wiranto, his participation in the discussions and the general attitude taken by Dr Habibie but there is a realisation that things had to change, that things have begun to change. How far they’ve changed, how effective that change has been is obviously something that we have to see unfold.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, how can you maintain the confidence given that even with General Wiranto’s presence at a peace ceremony in the territory itself still the atrocities continue and there hasn’t been a disarming of the militia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the confidence that I expressed was a confidence that things were infinitely better than they were a week or two weeks ago. People have been running around asking me for guarantees. I can’t give absolute guarantees, nobody can and it’s a really ridiculous question for anybody to ask an Australian Prime Minister. Because in the end we are dealing with a sovereign nation and you have two alternatives when you are dealing with a sovereign nation, you either seek to use your influence over them or you attack them or perhaps the third alternative you just completely ignore the problem. Now, we have no intention of adopting either the second or third alternatives so we are left with the first alternative. And that is what I have been endeavouring to do and that is what I believe with a reasonable level of success I have been able to do particularly over the last week.

But if you are saying to me, can I give you a rolled gold absolute guarantee? Of course I can’t and it’s a ridiculous question to ask of me or to even infer that I can give. What I can say to you, that is judged on my discussions yesterday with Dr Habibie, the views of my two Ministers who accompanied me, the views of our officials who went there, the discussions I had with him over the phone, all the other assessments and advice I have got I believe the situation now is a lot better and it has a lot greater chance of being successful and it is far more likely now that we are going to have a free and open act of choice. Now, that is a very significant development. Now, I….if you regard that as my being confident well they are your words. I can only tell you as I assess it and as I feel it and I just go back to my opening remark that a year ago nobody was talking about a vote, a year ago nobody was talking about a UN supervised ballot, certainly nobody in the Indonesian Government was. And our predecessors who are fairly free with their advice at the moment, they had 13 years to persuade the Indonesian Government to bring about a change of policy in relation to East Timor and my recollection and observation is that they didn’t even seriously try let alone succeed.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, Labor, the Greens and the Democrats have today jointly released their own draft Constitutional preamble….

PRIME MINISTER:

Have they, I haven’t seen it. What does it contain?

JOURNALIST:

Well, it’s markedly, significantly different from yours, it contains….

PRIME MINISTER:

That surprises me immensely. What is it, a joint one is it?

JOURNALIST:

Yes.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes. It’s good to see the Greens and the Democrats acting independently of the Labor Party.

JOURNALIST:

Well, are you prepared to take up on any of the themes that they….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I haven’t even seen it.

JOURNALIST:

Are you amenable to sitting down with them and talking about….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’ll have a look at what they have had to say and I’ll have a look at what they have had to say.

JOURNALIST:

I think you’ve said Friday is the deadline of submissions to you, will you be releasing them?

PRIME MINISTER:

Do you want to see them all?

JOURNALIST:

Yes.

PRIME MINISTER:

Ask a journalist a question and you’ll always get an answer, yes.

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh look, I’ll take that question on notice and think about it. And, I mean, some of them are…might be worth releasing, yes.

JOURNALIST:

Can I just return to Indonesia for a minute?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, certainly.

JOURNALIST:

Yesterday you have said that the job of the armed forces was a defence of Indonesia and the job of police was security. Up to this point it would seem that the armed forces have been used for, in perhaps quotation marks, "security", are you suggesting there has been a very significant shift in….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there has been a split in the functions. I think probably the more correct and accurate expression would be national security rather than defence because there comes a time in the, or can come the time in the affairs of any nation, where its army can be required to aid the civilian power because the problems the civilian authority is facing is so great that they need the help of the army. Now, that doesn’t happen in our societies normally and it doesn’t happen in many societies but in others it does. But the Indonesians, unlike the Malaysians, have never had this strict separation of police and the army and they have now started to go down that path and I think, well they certainly feel that that’s quite a significant development. Once again I think it’s a question of waiting and seeing how it works out.

JOURNALIST:

The signal from that statement was that you believe that there’s no role for the armed forces as such in the security, internally…

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, I wasn’t, I mean, I might have a view on that but I wasn’t necessarily trying to imply something in that particular response.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, the inflation numbers…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, it’s outstanding, isn’t it?

JOURNALIST:

I was just going to ask, is it a set of figures you’re happy with?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, of course I’m happy with it. I mean, it is exceptionally low because of the impact of the introduction of the private health insurance rebate. But even if you throw that out of it we are really breaking all sorts of records in relation to continued low inflation. And it bodes very well for wages growth. It bodes very well for the climate effecting interest rates. I make no comment about the current level of interest rates. But we really have entered a very pleasing era of continued low inflation. And I want to thank the employees of Australia for their contribution to that and to also make the obvious comment that you don’t get those sorts of results without having all of your policies working in the right direction. And getting the budget back into surplus and all the other reforms and changes that we’ve brought about have played a very significant role in bringing about that low inflation. And it’s an outstanding indication of how competitive and how strong the Australian economy is at the present moment.

JOURNALIST:

It’s now several weeks since you said the Government was considering whether to have an inquiry into the piggery affair. When will you make a decision about that?

PRIME MINISTER:

The current situation, Michelle, is that the Attorney-General has sought information from various people. I’m not aware at the moment as to whether he’s had responses to all of those requests and the next step would be, if and when he’s got all of that material, is for him to tender some advice to the Government.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, your internet filtering legislation.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

JOURNALIST:

Are you concerned that the industry, almost all aspects of industry have criticised it as both being ineffective and an unreasonable impulse [inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think that sort of reaction is predictable.

JOURNALIST:

Do you share John Fahey’s sadness at the retirement of ‘Alfie’ Langer today?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes. ‘Alfie’s’ been a tremendous Queensland footballer. He’s been a tremendous Broncos player. He’s been a tremendous Australian player. And I don’t I’ve seen anybody in recent years who’s been more elusive and nimble on his feet than ‘Alfie’ Langer. And I wish him well and I thank him for the tremendous contribution that he’s made to Australian rugby league. And on that note I’ll terminate the press conference. Thank you.

 

 

 

jy 29041999